If you walk to the edge of Leoti, Kansas you can look out to a flat forever. Western Kansas isn’t known for it’s geographic diversity – pretty much wheat, corn and an eternal flat horizon. Being raised in the mountains of Utah, whenever we would go out to visit my Grandpa, and check out the town my mom was raised in, it was quite the geographic and cultural experience. Georgia Lee Kelley spent the better part of her youth in Leoti, being raised by Bailey and Irvie Kelley in a classic small town on a classic small farm just outside of town. After returning home from WWII where he served in the south pacific, Bailey struggled to grow anything in the dry soil. I remember him telling me many times how it’s amazing anything would grow out there. Regardless, there is a deep connection that Mom had to West Kansas. But her connection to her family and eventually her husband and children was as strong as steel, never wavering. She has been gone from us for over 8 years now, but that steel thread remains, a thread of love that ties all who knew and loved her together.
Mom loved to laugh. After we had been in Alpine for a year or so in the mid 1970’s I remember mom coming home with a box of incredible oranges. I wolfed down a couple, and grabbed some more to take outside and enjoy. Mom glanced down from what she was doing in the kitchen and warned, “be careful, if you eat too many too fast you might get sick”. Promptly ignoring her I ran outside, only to be back a little while later, white faced and sick as can be. I barely made it to the kitchen sink to throw it all up. Mom sat down and enjoyed the show, laughing, then got up, cleaned me up and scooted me out the door.
So much of that story is symbolic of her life. Always there for her family, trying to enjoy every minute, and being by the side of her family to help in whatever way she could. For her first 40 years mom was energetic, engaged and happy. She loved to take long walks in the fields of Alpine (when that was still possible), hike up North Mountain with the youth at church, or serve as Relief Society President. She served many years in that calling, loving to help out those in need, teach, and try to make a difference for good in our small community. I love this photo of her her from one of the backpacking trips we took as a family. If I remember right that trip it rained most of the time, boring Anthony, Julie and I to insanity, but I think mom loved all the down time just laying around in the tent.
But later things took a dramatic turn for her, in ways that stretched and tested her for the rest of her life. I got a letter from her in the fall of 1984 while I was in Logansport Indiana, just a few weeks before I was to come home from my mission. She explained to me what had happened to her the past year, in an effort to help prepare me for the different person that she was. Mom and Dad hadn’t said anything during my mission so that I wouldn’t worry and could focus. She had had foot surgery a year or so prior, nothing major, but to try and correct a small problem. But something went wrong in the process with her body, causing a chemical imbalance that dramatically affected her. She found herself afraid to go anywhere, having what we now call panic attacks in the hospital, and later when she came home. Energy was gone, desire and focus was so difficult to have and severe confusion and depression ensued. She thought she was going insane, and for a time wasn’t sure she could live much longer. It took quite awhile to find a psychiatrist to diagnose her, because symptoms like hers were not commonly understood or treated accurately in those days. She was put on some new medication called Xanax that helped her, but little did she know at the time that it would be so addictive, as well as a myriad of other meds that she tried and used over the years to help her.
So began her life as a middle aged woman battling anxiety, agoraphobia and depression. The cycle of meds that she had to constantly use and tinker with became vitally important to her. Like so many people today, the meds helped her to function in limited ways, but those limits were strict. When you saw her physically she looked fine, quick to smile and express love, constantly checking in, always faithful with cards and presents on holidays. But doing basic tasks were ten times harder, facing uncertainty was ten times harder, and when Dad’s income was down the geometry continued upward. Like many who grapple with anxiety, fear often trumps faith and confidence in the unknown future. Thanks to Dad’s unwavering patience, and I know it tested him greatly as well, he was able to gently encourage her to go to church, or go to the store with him. Sometimes she could do it herself, because she loved to be with people. Dad always said that mom had a gift for being a friend to anyone. I remember many times going to the grocery store with her, no matter whether in Utah or later in California, where she would strike up a happy conversation with anyone, cheering us all up. Plus, she would always buy me a treat – something that no matter how old you get is fun.
Regardless of it all, family and close friends remained her true joy and passion. With 3 kids and grandkids popping up all over the US, they made a lot of road trips to see us all. No matter where we were, mom and dad would come as often as they could. Family was her life source, and it ached her if she couldn’t see us enough – which for her was always! Her calls were regular, wanting to know everything about everyone, and if there was anything she could do to help. She was so devoted to her children and grandchildren, rejoicing when they accomplished things, and prayed and despaired for them when difficulties arose. It seemed that she knew all birthdays, anniversaries, weddings – pretty much most things I constantly forget about. Cards would come, dependable as gravity, with words of love and encouragement.
But through it all her loyalty and devotion to dad, and he to her, was stunning in the face of the difficulties that they sometimes endured. A neighbor of ours in Alpine, who was there to see the first few years of mom getting ill, told me years later how inspiring their marriage was. Our neighbor had marital problems, and seeing how Dad continued to stay with mom when she radically changed was incredible for this neighbor to watch. Dad rarely talked about the first few years after her foot surgery, as the memories were pretty raw. The only words of sincere reflection that I ever heard him say was that “She was a different woman than the one I married”.
Being married to an artist is never the easiest thing even during the best of times. Steadiness and consistency are not words to describe life with a creative. But they were never boring for them! And most of the time they enjoyed the ride. Words such as covenant, honor and fidelity seem to have a lesser meaning in today’s world, but for mom and dad they never wavered in their efforts to be true to those words. They consistently sought joy in the journey together no matter what, supporting each other in their weaknesses, teasing and giggling at life’s craziness, and always holding hands other no matter how they felt.
The years 2007-2009 were not the best of times for many Americans. The financial crash hit many hard and heavy, and me and my family were not an exception. Work became scarce in Arizona where we lived at the time, and it became clear I needed to go to California to see if I could find some classes to teach, and do some freelance design while looking for a tenure track teaching position. Mom and Dad lived in Pasadena at the time and invited me to come, stay with them, giving me a home base to find work. Laureen stayed with the kids in AZ, keeping things together while I went away, often for 3 weeks at a time before coming home for a quick weekend.
At the time Dad was teaching full time at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and in what time off he could get he painted. They were in a cute little house in Altadena that had a guest room that I was able to stay in. Over the first few months I drove all over LA many many times interviewing, and doing the networking thing. After dozens of meetings with no luck I finally was able to contact a professor at Long Beach State University and was asked to meet for lunch in Pasadena. But I really did not want to do another fruitless meeting. I had done this so many times I was frankly worn out and really discouraged, and ready to just go home and try something else. I’ll never forget Mom and Dad gently encouraging me to go and see what happens. The meeting went great, classes were offered to teach, which led to other great opportunities over the next year.
While the year progressed into late 2008 and early 2009 I had many opportunities to take mom to the store, trips to do some quick shopping or to her many medical appointments, primarily to help with the breast cancer she was battling. She had beat it years earlier, but it had come back stronger. The treatments were not progressing well, and in fact the cancer was spreading and it became clear that it was not going to go away. Regardless of the difficult time for all of us, there was more laughter than tears (though those came often), and more of seeking for joy in the small things.
She loved to go to movies with Dad and I. Going out to get a frozen yogurt, going to their favorite Thai restaurant, watching some of her favorite shows on TV. Pulling out family photo albums where she instilled in me my love of family history. She knew everyone in those photo albums by name, and had stories to tell about so many. When Laureen and the kids came it was fun time, and we would go to the LA Observatory, or go to Santa Monica and the beach that she loved so much. She pushed herself when family and friends came, and paid a price for days later.
I was fortunate to be offered a teaching position after over a year with mom and dad, one that took us to Missouri of all places. Surprising, but wonderful. Mom rejoiced when I told her of the offer and our decision to do it. She didn’t want us to go so far, but she was more than happy for us, and knew the future was bright. And so we left before the cancer had really taken its toll. Within a few months after leaving Julie called and said it was time to come as Mom didn’t have much time left. The day after arriving and spending the night with her and Dad, a beautiful morning came, and surrounded by her family that she loved so much she left this earth, to find a peace that she had been looking forward to for so long.
Georgia Lee Kelley Graves left behind a legacy of love and happiness, forever leaving positive impressions with all she came in contact with. For me, her love for others drives me every day, to treat others in a genuinely caring way, regardless of circumstances. Staying close to family, loving and cheering in the good times, praying and being empathetic during the bad times. And though she recognized her faults freely, she knew a higher power than her would make up the difference in the end. She loved her family as true as can be, a driving force that resonates today in the hearts of her family as strong as when she was around. Grace in trials, faith in uncertainty, and endurance in suffering is left for her family to learn from, and hopefully a legacy for generations to follow.